Fulton musician Wes Sheffield exhaled smoke and pointed his cigarette at the old Fulton Tire Store, closed years ago.
“That’s it,” he said, a bit of excitement breaking through his usual laid back tone. “That’s where I got my first guitar.”
That was 13 years ago, and Sheffield, 24, had only been a boy. Something about the instrument spoke to him and he begged his grandfather, hunting a bicycle tire, to purchase it for him.
He did, pretty much setting the course for Sheffield’s life up until this point.
“I’m by nature somewhat of an obsessive person sometimes,” Sheffield said. “As soon as I found something that piqued my interest, I dove right in. I’ve been playing ever since.”
These days, Sheffield is feeling pretty good about where that acoustic guitar’s led him. Last year, he released his first album, a 10-song bluesy romp called “Fever,” and followed it immediately with a hectic U.S. tour (28 dates, 16 states in 36 days) with L.A.-based roots-rock band Truth & Salvage Co. and the members of his backing band, the Slowburners.
He called those days hectic, but fun.
“There’s a certain reverence you get for all the bands that have done it before you when you’re traveling around in a 15-passenger van,” he said of the tour. They mostly hit small- to mid-sized venues … the intimate kinds of places where the band can hop offstage and grab a drink with the fans after the show.
“We got to see some really cool corners of the country and meet a lot of nice people,” he said.
Now, as he settles back into a bit of a routine — writing a song here and there, working at Tupelo-based SongShine Entertainment Studios and spending time with his family — he’s granted opportunity to reflect on the road behind him, and what lies around the bend ahead.
The road behind
“I think that maybe I saw the same thing in Hendrix that everybody saw in Hendrix,” Sheffield said, talking childhood again, specifically the first time he saw Jimi Hendrix play his psychedelic rendition of the National Anthem. “It was that element of freedom and expression in what he did. It seemed liberating. For an 11 year old in Fulton, Mississippi, liberating was welcome.”
When asked about his influences, Sheffield cited musicians in a number of genres from a handful of decades: The Eagles, Beatles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers Band and, on the engineering side of it, Nine Inch Nails. Local musicians — Jeff Spencer, Mark Willcutt and the late Mike Mehalic — also played their roles in defining what Sheffield considers to be his sound: something molasses-thick and rich in the traditions of the American South.
“Growing up in Mississippi, you hear a lot of the blues; I’ve always kind of considered myself a blues artist,” he said.
By the time he was 19, Sheffield was already playing some small gigs. “Making the rounds,” as he called it. For a brief spell, he was enrolled at Berklee College of Music in Boston (“The weather and tuition bills encouraged me to leave.”) and tried his hand at the LA music scene for a brief period before returning to Mississippi.
“I got an idea of what the industry was like and learned what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do,” he said.
What he wanted to do, he said, was create music true to his heritage, but not beholden to it. With his album, its songs titled things like “Jailor Man,” “The Bottom of the Bigbee” and, simply, “Mississippi,” he feels like he’s done that. There’s something about the South, his home, which inspires him.
“We have such a lyrical culture … all the sayings and whatnot,” he said of the South. “And I still think we live in the prettiest part of the country. There are certain spots that are more dramatic, but I think north Mississippi’s the prettiest.”
The bend ahead
“You get a lot of people who think you’re either famous or you’re broke … that’s not necessarily the case,” Sheffield said of music.
Like many musicians, Sheffield is balancing his passion for songwriting and performing with his need to survive. Those two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but it takes a lot of hard work on the part of the performer to make ends meet in a field that’s notably fickle.
It’s something about which Sheffield has thought a great deal, especially as life’s responsibilities begin to build.
“You have to find the balance between work and professionalism and creating someone of artistic merit,” he said. “If you stop having fun, you need to stop what you’re doing anyway. It’s good to maintain a level of personal credibility.”
But one of the biggest misconceptions about the music business, he said, is that a musician is either someone everybody’s heard of, or nobody has … that the stars that shine brightest are the ones that are seen; all the rest might as well burn out.
There’s something very special about performing at the level Sheffield is now. In many ways, there’s far more freedom there.
“The point of this isn’t to be a star,” he said. “I think if you’re in your mid-20s and it’s still all about you, you’ve missed something. The real reason we do what we do is to bring things that we hear in our heads into reality for everyone else to hear and do the same thing back to us.”
To that end, Sheffield said he’d never stop writing and performing music, no matter where the road takes him. His love of sound engineering — basically defining what recorded or live music sounds like — provides a likely destination.
“You’re creating pictures with sound,” he said of engineering. “There’s just so many things you can do and so many ways you can shape a song and experiment with sound. I love that creative and technical part of music.”
He added, “I guess it goes back to that obsessiveness I was talking about.”
Which is good, because that’s what brought an 11-year-old boy from Fulton with a bicycle tire in one hand and an acoustic guitar in the other to this point in the first place.